The Thing Is, I’m Undocumented
This is Oumou Troure. She’s an all-American girl who grew up in Boston and loves the Celtics, playing the saxophone, and window-shopping on Newbury Street. She’s also one of the 65,000 kids in the U.S. who graduate high school each year but aren’t legal residents. So even though she’s been accepted to college, she can’t get a loan to pay for it. She can’t get a job to support herself, either. When she tells me this, I step closer, ignoring my parents’ constant warnings to never talk about what I’m about to say — you can never tell who’s listening. “I know what you’re going through,” I whisper.
It’s springtime, just a few months from Oumou’s graduation, when she and I meet at a café near her home. She tells me that her mother knows an Angolan man with U.S. citizenship who, for a fee, will marry her. Her mother can raise some of the money, but Oumou would need to come up with the rest.
“Don’t,” I immediately blurt out, before Oumou can tell me that she’s already refused this option. She doesn’t want to commit fraud, and besides, she hasn’t even started dating. She leans back in her chair and stares at the table. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do when school ends — babysit, clean homes, whatever. She looks depressed. She’s sitting right next to me as we sip smoothies, but she seems far away. “Sometimes,” she says, “I just don’t want to be here anymore.”
“You’ll go back to Cape Verde?” I ask, recalling that awkward moment from a recent GOP debate when Mitt Romney advocated “self-deportation.” I worry about what will happen to Oumou if she takes a one-way flight back to Cape Verde. She doesn’t have anyone there except for her father, whom she speaks to by phone every few years.
Oumou shakes her head. That’s not what she meant. “Sometimes I feel like it’s not worth living,” she says. “I regret that I was even born. I’m not going to be born into a world where I’m not even going to have rights to anything. I don’t have the right to work, to go to school, to get a license.”
A few days later, she calls me. She’s been crying all day at school. Graduation is so close. I feel helpless, but also conflicted. In writing about her experience, I’m supposed to be disinterested and detached, but I can’t turn her away. Perhaps like no one else, I understand what she’s feeling.
I was fortunate enough to have been born to parents who could pay my college tuition out of pocket, and I was lucky to have had Reagan give me a pathway to citizenship. If not for that, I would have been like Oumou, unable to have the full adult life I’d earned, living in constant fear of deportation. I can feel myself crossing a line, but I make appointments anyway with people who might have answers, and I invite Oumou to come along. I think I’m helping.
It’s 8 a.m., and Oumou is texting me. Only yesterday she got the money to turn her phone back on. I haven’t heard from her in a while, even by e-mail, because the neighbors with WiFi within range of her bedroom were late paying their bill this month. Now she’s texting me to make sure I’m still meeting her at UMass Boston later that afternoon. The last time we spoke, Oumou told me she was going to give up pursuing funding for college, even though she’d been accepted to several schools. A year’s tuition might as well have been a billion dollars. I was surprised by how that affected me. She couldn’t just give up on herself like that, I told her. I encouraged her to head out to the UMass campus and ask if they could help. So today we’re going to ask an admissions counselor if there’s any way Oumou can attend the school even if she has no way of paying.
Oumou’s anxious texts start again an hour and a half ?before the meeting. School’s just let out; she’s waiting for the T; she’s at the JFK stop now; she’s stepping onto the campus shuttle; she’s too cold outside the campus center because she left her jacket at a party over the weekend, so where should she wait? When we finally meet up, Oumou’s wearing a thin pink cardigan and her hair is slicked into a bun. She appears years older and, but for her “I Heart Boobies!” bracelet, part of a breast cancer campaign aimed at teenagers, could be mistaken for someone who works on the campus.
“Where do we go?” she asks.
I point to the sign in silver letters — Admissions — right in front of us and try to hide my impatience. I’ve never seen her this riled up before. The admissions counselor tells us that Oumou’s SATs are slightly low, but her grades are strong, so if she successfully completes a special summer program she’ll be guaranteed a spot in the fall class. She tells him she wants to attend, but that she has to pay out-of-state tuition, even though she’s lived in the neighborhood most of her life. Finally getting that she’s undocumented without her ever actually saying so, he suggests we visit “The One Stop,” a centralized office for students to take care of their accounts and registration. There’s hope: Someone in the next office will show her how to pay for college. Oumou’s relieved as we walk to the One Stop, but her smile fades as soon as she hits the desk. The woman working doesn’t even want to hear Oumou’s question until she hands over identification. Oumou fumbles for her high school ID and the woman hands it back. “I need government-issued ID,” she says.
“I don’t have one,” Oumou says.
“Then let me type in your Social,” the woman says.
“I don’t have one,” Oumou says. She’s squeezing her forehead and covering her eyes with her hand.
“How can you not have a Social Security number?” the woman asks. Oumou backs away from the desk, teary. The woman doesn’t see a foreigner, but a young black woman much like herself. She sees an American. As I spend more time with Oumou, I’m growing increasingly confused about my role. Am I a journalist or an advocate? But Oumou is crying right now, so I speak up.
“She’s a newly accepted student, but she won’t matriculate until the fall semester,” I say. “She wants to find out how to pay for college.”
“Just fill out a FAFSA,” the woman says. Actually, Oumou has tried to fill out that financial aid form online, but the program never allows her beyond the field where she’s supposed to enter her Social Security number. We’re sent upstairs to the scholarships office, but we don’t get past the reception desk, where the woman tells Oumou that she needs to figure out her immigration status first.
Worn out and discouraged, we sit in silence for 10 minutes on a bench near the elevator. All my help has resulted in a futile scavenger hunt through the campus center. I’m realizing that this might not end well for Oumou, and I’m feeling guilty that I ever got her involved.